THE MORRIS AND SWORD
DANCES OF ENGLAND
I bought this book from the Bagman 27 May 1972 in Sedlescombe and took photographs with my children beside me on that rainy day
What Morris Dancing is and is not
orris dancing is not an antiquarian revival or an attempt to resusciate something that is dead and buried. It is as much alive and as much a normal part of contemporary life as cricket or football, or any other such form of activity - although, fortunately, it has no 'professionals'. The men who dance the Morris do so because they enjoy dancing it (and also because they find that others enjoy watching it). Morris dancers are now a fairly familiar sight all over the country, and you are quite likely to come across a team dancing when you are out and about, especially during the summer months.
Older than Cricket
Although you might not guess it simply from watching the dances, the Morris has a very ancient history, so ancient that its origins are lost in the distant past. It is much older, for instance, than cricket and most of our well-known sports, and until about a hundred years ago most of the Cotswold villages had their own Morris sides, each dancing its own local variants of the Morris dances. The traditional time for Morris dancing in that part of the country was Whitsun, and some teams used to spend the whole of Whitsun week touring and dancing in their own neighbourhood. Nowadays we dance at all times of the year, indoors and out.
Survival through bad times
The changes in social conditions during the last century had a bad effect on the Cotswold Morris, and many villages gave it up altogether. But in some villages where there happened to be a man of enthusiasm and determination, the Morris was able to persist through these changes and upheavals and through two world wars. For instance, at Bampton, near Witney in Oxfordshire, it was William Wells (who died in November 1953 at the age of 85) who for over fifty years as dancer and fiddler ensured that the Bampton Morris should go on, and every Whitmonday the Bampton dancers can be see dancing in the streets and gardens of their own town. At Headington, near Oxford, William Kimber was the driving force, and not only the present Headington Quarry team, which has a nationwide reputation, but Morris men all over the country are greatly indebeted to him, for throughout his long life he was always ready to help them to the utmost of his ability. He lived to reach the age of 89, and was thus a most important link between the older and younger generations of dancers. By a remarkable coincidence, as will be see from the next paragraph, he died on Boxing Day 1961, 62 years to the day after his first meeting with Cecil Sharp, about whom we must now go on to speak.
At Christmas 1899 Cecil Sharp happened to be staying at Headington. On Boxing Day he looked out of the drawing.room window and saw a curious procession of men in white clothes coming up the drive. It was the Headington Quarry Morris side, William Kimber among them, coming to give a performance of their dances (at the wrong time of year, because they were out of work, and wanted to turn an honest penny). This meeting was the beginning of a lifelong friendship between Cecil Sharp and William Kimber, and was also the beginning of Cecil Sharp's great work of rediscovering the Morris dances. During the following years, he visited village after village in the Cotswolds, finding the old dancers, learning from them the tunes and steps and figures of their dances, and then teaching them to others. He did the same in the North-East of England, where he found many traditional Sword-dance teams. Without Cecil Sharp's persistence and enthusiasm, not only in collecting and learning the dances but also in getting other peple to dance them, most of the Morris might have been lost for ever. By means of the Society which he founded in 1911 (the English Folk Dance Society, later amalgamated with the Folk Song Society) he spread the knowledge and practice of the dances. Cecil Sharp died in 1924, and a few years later, in his memory, Cecil Sharp House was erected in Regents' Park Road in London, as a centre for traditional dancing and singing. You may have heard of the great annual festivals of folk dances which take place in the Albert Hall early in the year. These are organised by the English Folk Dance and Song Society, and some Morris and Sword dances are always included in the programme.
The Morris Men's Clubs
In course of time, as knowledge of the dances spread and as enthusiasm increased, a number of Morris men's Clubs came into existence. There were only a few of these Clubs at first, but now they are to be found in many parts of the country. These Clubs meet regularly for practices, and to give shows in the open, and some Clubs undertake tours lasting for several days, dancing in towns and villages. You may well see sides from some of these Clubs dancing in various places during the summer. Each Club is independent, makes its own plans, and elects its own officers, who are usually two in number, the Squire (or President), and the Bagman (Secretary and Treasurer), The same titles were adopted for the officers of the Ring at its foundation. Each Club has its own variant of the Morris costumes; in time you will be able to recognise some of them by their baldricks (not, not braces!) and by the designs on their jackets.
The Morris Ring
In 1934 representatives from six of these early Clubs met and decided to institute The Morris Ring, which was intended to be a federation of the Morris Clubs all over the country. The six founder Clubs were Cambridge, Letchworth, Thaxted, Oxford, East Surrey, and Greensleeves. During the following years the number of Clubs associated in the Morris Ring has increased to over seventy; an increase which far exceeded anything which the original founders of the Ring could foresee.
Morris Ring Gatherings
It has become customary for the Morris Ring to organise two or three week-end gatherings every year, at which men from various Clubs may meet and dance together. At some of these meetings there have been nearly four hundred dancers present. On the Saturday the teams separate into groups to visit the surrounding villages, and then reassemble in the central town or city for a public display, followed by a supper together. These meas continue such customs as the Kirtlington (Oxon) Lamb Ale, held annually in the weeks following Whitsun week until about the middle of the last century, which was attended by Morris sides from many miles around. Perhaps the best known of the Ring Meetings is the spring meeting at Thaxted in Essex, but the first Thaxted meeting was held in 1927, seven years before the foundation of the Morris Ring.
The Ring's Coming of Age
To celebrate the Ring's coming of age, meetings and displays of Morris dancing were arranged in many different places during 1955; among them were London, Cambridge, Thaxted, the Cotswolds, Lichfield and Manchester. The week-end meeting in London in July 1955 was attended by over 350 men (dancers and musicians). The purpose of this brochure, which was originally prepared for the coming-of-age celebrations, is to enable those who see the dancing to understand something of what it means to us and what lies behind it - and also to share something of our hope for what lies before it, for experience leads us to believe that as more men come to see the Morris and to realise the interest and fascination of it, more and more Clubs will spring up all over the country.
Varieties of the Morris and its Music
The Cotswold Morris
No one knows for certain the origin of the name, but there is no doubt what the Morris is. One well-known variety of it is that which originally belonged to the Cotswolds. The side or team consists of six dancers, the musicians and the Fool. The instruments most generally favoured (known in Oxfordshire as the whittle and dub), the fiddle and the concertinas. All of these, with the addition of the accordion, are used today. Many of the tunes used for the dances are not otherwise known, and are of remote antiquity; others have been borrowed and adapted from popular songs at various periods. Two other important features of the Morris are the Cake, carried round impaled on a sword, portions of it being distributed to the spectators to show their appreciation of the performance. The tunes and steps and dances of each village differed slightly from those of other villages; hence we have the various 'traditions', called after the names of the villages to which they belong. The most important of these are Headington (near Oxford); Campton (Oxon); field Town (or Leafeild, near Burford, Oxon); Longborough (near Stow-on-the-Wold, Glos); Bledlington (also near Stow); Abingdon (Berks); Adderbury (Oxon); Buchnell (near bicester, Oxon); Sherborne (Glos); Ilmington (Warwickshire); Eynsham (Oxon); Brackley (Northants). Any programme of Morris dances which you see is almost certain to include dances from some of these 'traditions'.
It will be noticed that some of the dances are handkerchief dances, some are hand-clapping dances, and some are stick-clapping dances.
In addition to the set-dances for six men, the Costwold Morrise also includes Jigs for a single dancer, or for a pair of dancers. These jigs give the good dancers an opportunity of displaying their skill, and provide a change for the spectators and a relief for the rest of the dancers.
Dances with affinities to the Cotswold Morris have been discovered in Worcestershire and Herefordshire, and even as far north as Lichfield in Staffordshire. Lichfield has a repertoire of dances of outstanding interest. Another important and unique traditional dance, of a different character, survives in Staffordshire. This is the well-known Abbots Bromley Horn Dance. which is performed annually in September. Here the chief dancers carry reindeer horns, which when not in use are kept in the church.
The Derbyshire Morris
The dances of Derbyshire are somewhat different in type from those of the Cotswolds and require up to sixteen dancers. The set dances are more similar in form to reels and country dances; and the processional dances, which are a feature of the Derbyshire Morris, are particularly effective. Bells are not an original part of the equipment of these traditions, though they have been adopted in recent years. Examples of the Derbyshire Morris are the Processional dance from Tideswell, and the Processional and other dances from Winster.
The Lancashire and Cheshire Morris
The Lancashire and Cheshire Morris belongs principally to the industrial towns, and was in full vigour about the middle of the nineteenth century. Many teams continued until 1914, and several were still dancing after 1919. In type it is similar to the Derbyshire Morris, but there is more 'stepping', and the general effect is more spectauculr. The dress of the dancers is perhaps the most elaborate and colourful of all English dancers' costumes, and the effect of the stepping is accentuated by the fancy clogs which are word. Instead of the handkerchiefs and sticks used by the Cotswold dancers the Lancashire men carry 'slings' of untwisted cotton rope, or 'tiddlers' which are made of rope bound with coloured ribbons. Some teams carry short sticks bound in a similar way, but these are never struck together.
A typical example of the Lancashire Morris is the Mossley Dance, which requires a minimum of nine men. One of these is the Leader, who does not take a great part in the actual dance, but calls the figures, or indicates a change of figure by blowing a whistle. Sometimes he will execute more complicated steps while the other dancers are performing a figure.
The musical accompaniment is often several concertinas and a drum. The Manley Morris Men are a traditional team, whose dance originally came from the Royton district. Another traditional team shown is the Britannia Coco-nut dancers from Bacup. This dance is a unique variety of the Morris within the Lancashire tradition.
In the old days the Lancashire Morris was often associationed with the rushcart processions during Wakes Week.
Although we do not now normally think of the Sword dances as Morris dances, the sword-dancers used to be called Morris dancers in their own localities, and there are a number of traditional teams still active. One or more of these dances are often practiced and performed by some of the Morris Men's Clubs, and some Clubs make sword-dancing their chief activity.
There are two types of English Sword Dance:
1. The Long-sword Dance, which is performed by six or eight men, who carry rigid swords, from 30 to 4 inches long, made either of steel or wood. The dancers begin by clashing their swords together, after which they line up in a ring or in pairs, and perform intricate figures during which they pass over or under the swords; finally they plait the swords into a star-shaped Lock which is held aloft at the climax of the dance. Their leader is often called the King, and he sometimes takes part in a play with the non-dancing members of the party, the Clowns (Fools), one or more, and the 'Betty' (man-woman).
The usual time for the performance of this type of dance is about Christmas, but in some districts it is associated with the Plough Stots, and is seen round about Plough Monday, the Monday after Twelfth Night (Epiphany). Although it was once practiced throughout Yorkshire and the adjacent counties east f the Pennines, traditional performers of the dance are now found only in two ares, round Sheffield and in the Cleveland district of North Yorkshire, where there are a number of teams, particularly in the iron-mining villages. Because the swords form a rigid link between the dancers, the Long-sword Dance, in order to be effective, requires a igher degree of coordination than any other form of Morris, and owing to this and the control needed for executing the comparatively slow movements it is not often performed by non-traditional teams.
2. The Short-sword or Rapper Dante. The 'rappers' used in this dance are flexible and have two handles, and the hild-and-point ring of dancers normally consists of five men, accompanied by two additional characters, teh 'Tommy' and the 'Betty', each of whom also carried a rapper, and in some traditions they join in skilfully with the main dancers towards the conclusion of the dance.
The Rapper Dance is found in a limited area along the Tyneside in Northumberland and County Durham. Fifteen of the twenty-nine known rapper traditions have been found within a circly only a few miles in diameter. The long-sword dances of Yorkshire (and of southern County Durham) have close parallels in Germany and elsewhere, but nothing comparable with the rapper dance is known. There is nothing quite like it for speed and complexity among the traditional ceremonial dances of Europe. Although there are not written records of it before the seventeenth century, in all probability it is of very ancient origin. The credit for maintaining this unique Christmastide custom belongs to the coal-miners of Tyneside.
A sword-dance recently discovered at Greatham, County Durham, is an interesting link between these two main types of sword-dances.
A distinctive feature of the Sword dances, which recurs a number of times during any performance, is the Lock or Nut, in which the swords are plaited together. One such 'lock' has been adopted as its badge by the English Folk Dance and Song Society, and you often see members wearing it.
The English Sword dances muct be clearly distinguied from the Scottish Sword dance, in which the sowrds are not held in the hands but two swords are laid crosswise on the ground, and the dancer performs his steps over and between the swords. The corresponding English dance is the Bacca Pipes Jig, danced over two churchwarden pipes laid crosswise, which is sometimes performed in our shows.
Morris dancing is more popular today than ever before, and the Clubs (now over seventy in number) are spread over most parts of the country. Their number is continually increasing: in its twenty-first year the Ring admitted to association eith new Clubs, the highest entry in any one year since its foundation. Much, therefore, is being done to ensure the continuity of the tradition of English Morris and Sword dancing, and on this score an important contribution is being made by the junior teams connected with several of the Clubs, some of which are regularly see at Morris Ring meetings.
We hope that you will enjoy seeing the dances, and perhaps come of you will feel that you would like to begin dancing yourselves, or to learn to play for the dancers. If so, there may be a Club near where you live, whose practices you might be able to attend. Write to the Bagman (i.e. Secretary) of the Morris Ring, C/O Cecil Sharp House, 2 Regents Park Road, London, N.W.2
I used these photographs for years when teaching Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the knot of swords being the device on Sir Gawain's shield of the endless knot, the dancers exclaiming 'A nut, a nut!'
Cotswold Morris Dancers, the two groups traveling together and performing in Sussex villages that May
The Bagman, Dancing and Twirling his Umbrella
On playfulness see also http://www.umilta.net/playshool.html and http://www.umilta.net/promptorium.html
See also: http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2009/feb/07/morris-dancing-lucy-neal-victorian?CMP=share_btn_fb
Berea College in
Kentucky has a fine Cecil Sharp Collection in its library, as
he went there to collect English Appalachian folk music, which
we were taught in schools in England.
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